Constable | 2018 (5 April) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Blood was once a ship that sailed the oceans, helping to fight Britain’s wars in exotic and warm seas. But now she is moored up in a darkly poor part of London where she serves as a hospital to the sick and injured amongst London’s sailors and harbour workers. The Blood‘s apothecary is John Aberlady, a friend of Jem Flockhart, the apothecary of St Saviour’s Hospital, all that remains of a monastery recently demolished. Aberlady has vanished but before he disappeared he sent Jem a letter begging for help but the letter had got lost for a week and now it’s too late, the trail has run cold. Jem is given a temporary role standing in for Aberlady on The Blood, and there Jem is perfectly placed to observe the curious behaviour of the misfits who serve as doctors and nurses on this strangest of vessels. Lodging deep in the bowels of the ship, Jem becomes increasingly aware that something most sinister is at work on The Blood.
Jem’s closest friend Will Quartermaine, an architect, has been given a new commission. He must pull down a festering sore in London’s poorest streets, close to The Blood‘s berth, and replace it with a warehouse. This evil-smelling area is Deadman’s Berth and within its pools and buildings, so hidden away from polite view, there are secrets and something much, much worse.
The Blood is the third novel by E.S. Thomson to feature Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermaine and it easily establishes the series as one of the best being written today. I’ve loved all of the books but with no hesitation at all I declare that The Blood is my favourite and it is outstanding. This is no small triumph when you consider that the first two were both marvellous. But now the characters of Jem and Will are firmly established, their unusual relationship cleverly developed, and this assurance brings a confidence to the plot and to all other aspects of the novel.
If you haven’t yet read Beloved Poison and Dark Asylum, then you can certainly read and enjoy The Blood as a standalone novel. Everything that you need to know about Jem is explained quite early on, but I think it’s only through reading all three books in order that you realise what an extraordinary creation and personality Jem actually is. Jem is now one of my favourite characters in historical fiction. I can totally understand Will’s feelings towards Jem and I also feel very warmly towards Will. It’s all so complicated. So difficult. So incredible.
The Blood does such a fine job of presenting just the right mix of Victorian melodrama and historical reality. The novel is set in 1850, with pleasing references to Charles Dickens and others, in a recognisable London although much of the story takes place in London’s most godforsaken hellholes – its opium dens, its slums, its inns, its brothels and, most memorably, its morgues and dissection theatres. In this world, the poor and the desperate count for very little indeed. In fact, they are worth far more dead than alive, their corpses haggled over by doctors and their students. It’s a pitiful place for anyone to end up in, and Jem takes it personally and is driven to find justice for these poor people who found so little of it in life. And then there is The Blood herself – its hidden depths, secret passages, overheated cabins, its miserable wards of drugged patients. It is brilliantly drawn by E.S. Thomson.
There are some absorbing themes here, such as the treatment of black men and women in so-called educated society, the plight of young girls with nowhere to go, the subjugation of women, and the development of medicine. There’s an added touch of the exotic here, because the doctors aboard The Blood have a particular interest in tropical diseases. It’s all fascinating stuff.
The Blood entertains and intrigues on so many levels – for its mystery (which is excellent!), its themes, its vividly described locations, and for all of the little historical details about so many things, including clothes and herbs. E.S Thomson writes so beautifully. There are stunning descriptions of people and places – you can almost smell the stench of squalour and decay, while shuddering at the excesses of Victorian immorality and hypocrisy. And then we have Jem Flockhart and Will Quartermain, two young individuals that I have grown to love and fear for enormously. With no doubt at all, this is an early contender for my top historical fiction read of 2018.